Five simple healthy habits to feel good
A lot of things feel out of our control right now and the degree of uncertainty is unnerving for many of us. Diet and exercise are two things we can control, however, and they are key to our wellbeing. An ever-growing body of research shows just how important they are for our mental health, as well as our physical health.
A powerful example is the SMILES trial, which was the first intervention study to test whether improving diet could be used as a treatment strategy for depression. All participants had a diagnosis of clinical depression, and after following a modified Mediterranean diet for 12 weeks, 32% achieved full remission – they no longer suffered from depression, which was an incredible result.
Many people feel they need the latest superfood powder or an expensive online fitness membership to feel better. This isn’t the case. You can achieve sustainable changes to your health by keeping it simple. Stripping things back and establishing the foundations of good health is the key to feeling healthier and happier during this difficult time. I use a functional medicine approach, treating the whole person, body and mind, rather than a collection of different systems. Here are my top five healthy habits to improve mood through food and movement.
Healthy habit one - Add protein to every meal and snack
To make neurotransmitters such as serotonin (happiness), dopamine (pleasure and reward) and GABA (relaxation), we need amino acids. We get amino acids from protein. Not eating enough protein can affect neurotransmitter production and impact our wellbeing. Protein also helps stabilise our blood sugar levels. When they are out of balance, we go through the rollercoaster of sugar highs and crashes throughout the day which leaves us low in energy, irritable and feeling unable to cope.
Try to include a high quality source of protein with each meal and snack, great sources include:
- beans or legumes
- nuts and seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, flax, chia etc)
- omega 3 eggs
- organic chicken
- lean, organic lamb or beef
Healthy habit two – Don’t fear fat
We need omega 3 fats for a healthy brain. You can easily include them in your daily diet by increasing oily fish consumption (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring). Canned oily fish is a great emergency food to have in the cupboard for a quick brain boosting lunch.
Omega 3 eggs contain a rich source of choline for the brain. Enjoy avocados, nuts and seeds and organic grass-fed meat. These foods contain high amounts of omega 3.
Don’t forget to add some extra-virgin olive oil to salad and vegetables. This amazing oil is high in omega 3 and well known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Healthy habit three – Know your carbs
Carbohydrates are not all created equal. Most of us think of white bread, pasta and cakes when talking of carbs. These are often highly processed foods with little to no nutritional value, and contribute to dysregulated blood sugar, which increases risk of type 2 diabetes and ever expanding waistlines.
However, healthy carbohydrates are essential for our mood and brain function. Have you ever noticed craving lots of carbs when feeling low? Dietary carbs are the precursor to our two major neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine. Healthy carbs are abundant in real whole plant foods, which also contain the vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytonutrients we need for optimal health.
Include legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains in your shopping basket and focus on eating ‘the rainbow’ of fruit and vegetables. Each different colour contains its own unique set of phytonutrients, so the more variety in your diet, the greater the health benefits. I recommend having two portions of fruit and at least five portions of vegetables every day. Try vegetables which are slow energy releasing, such as asparagus, broccoli, kale, spinach, cabbage and brussels sprouts. These will keep you feeling energised all day long.
Fruits and vegetables also contain fibre which further helps to balance blood sugar by slowing sugar absorption in the gut. Fibre also contributes to a healthy and happy gut. Try to limit starchy cooked vegetables such as potatoes, corn and other root vegetables including carrots, parsnips and beetroot, to one portion per meal. These vegetables can contribute to spikes in blood sugar (I often need to sleep after eating potatoes!).
Healthy habit four – Increase anti-inflammatory foods
Studies have shown chronic low-grade inflammation increases the risk of developing depression. There are many causes for systemic inflammation such as stress, diet, inactivity, obesity, toxins, gut and nutrient deficiencies. The dietary intervention in the SMILES trial was based on modified Mediterranean, rich in anti-inflammatory foods.
Foods rich in anti-inflammatories include:
- oily fish
- red or purple berries (rich in polyphenols)
- dark green leafy vegetables
- orange sweet potatoes
Consider using herbs and spices such as turmeric, rosemary and ginger, as they have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Onions and garlic also help to reduce inflammation.
Replacing your lunchtime coffee with green tea can help to calm the mind and promote relaxation without drowsiness, as it contains the amino acid L-theanine. If you fancy a sweet treat, try a square of dark chocolate (a least 70% cocoa content) rich in antioxidants, magnesium and zinc.
Healthy habit five – Move every day
Many of us know exercise is good for our physical health, but not how powerful movement can be for our mood and brain health. Luckily, we have been allowed to go outside to exercise every day since lockdown. People have taken up running, discovered their love for yoga or created home HIIT classes.
When feeling low or anxious we sometimes don’t have the confidence or motivation to exercise. I encourage my clients to bring movement into their daily routine just for five minutes. Many find they feel better when they move first thing in the morning as soon as they get up. Doing a five-minute stretch, mini circuit or walk improves endorphins, serotonin, dopamine and GABA levels and helps keep them all in balance. If you feel like doing more than five minutes, that’s great, but making this habit achievable every day is the important thing.
When you are struggling with your mental health, it can be difficult to change your diet and lifestyle. I recommend taking it slowly. Bring in one new healthy habit at a time, tune in with how it makes you feel and, most of all, be kind to yourself.
Breakfast: Overnight oats with blueberries and pumpkin seeds.
Lunch: Falafel and rainbow salad (lettuce, spinach, rocket, beetroot, tomato and grated carrot) drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.
Dinner: Miso tofu or salmon with stir fried vegetables and quinoa sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds.
Snack: Apple with a handful of walnuts.
Exercise: 5 minutes of yoga, stretching, dancing or walking.
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